How to manage your digital life

Active intervention

“Digital archiving” might sound like something best left to trained professionals, but with so much of our lives online — photos, videos, financial records, audio recordings, creative projects — we’re all engaged in it these days, if only by neglect.

To help people become more purposeful about the organization and preservation of their digital lives, Scott Witmer, digital preservation specialist at the library, created a Guide to Digital Archiving that’s grounded in the methods used by professional archivists and digital preservationists, and adapted for the non-experts among us.

“We record our personal experiences and life events digitally on computers, phones, and other electronic devices,” Witmer says. “But unlike physical records, which can be stored and preserved over time with fairly little effort, digital materials require ongoing active intervention to remain accessible.”

Without a plan, Witmer explains, all of your digital content is vulnerable to computer crashes, changes in hardware and software, and to getting buried under the overwhelming number of items that many of us generate.

Getting started

The guide offers a low-key and reassuring introduction, acknowledging that “each person uses their digital stuff in different ways” and reminding us that even “a small effort to preserve your digital materials is better than doing nothing.”

The guide’s five-step process — select, gather, organize, backup, maintain — provides a framework that anyone can follow, and sits alongside an overview of important concepts in digital archiving, as well as more detailed information about managing various kinds of formats, file storage options, and more.

“It’s a good idea to keep digital preservation in mind as you create new digital files,” Witmer suggests.

Witmer, who joined the U-M Library back in 2017, has conducted workshops and popup events to encourage people to take a more thoughtful approach to managing their digital lives. He published the guide last May — not long after a scheduled event at the Ann Arbor District Library was canceled due to the pandemic — hoping to offer a rewarding, home-based project during these housebound times.


  1. Patrick CARDIFF - 1990

    Remember Data Mining? There are many PhD theses waiting to be earned in sociology, medicine, economics, math, anthropology, logic, philosophy and the arts given the treasure trove of data, the consequences of information put online in the last 30 years. We’ve contributed – well, a classification of users have – to the understanding of consumer behavior, we’ve constructed Big Data and we’ve birthed Data Science. Underlying it all is the big question – the willingness to “archive our lives,” and to share information to the public.

    But more than ever, folks need to be informed before they post online. Data proliferation has permitted the testing of extremes – not only the problems of technical glitches – as this article mentions – but privacy, confidentiality, statistical disclosure norms, business proprietary knowledge, access prohibitions; massive storehouses of information have spawned legislation around public/private ownership themes, information as capital. As an economist I’ve had to grapple with what selection bias means to sample design, what “weights” really entail, and how far we can trust summary inferences. These are opportunities in challenging times!


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